I spent quite a bit of time reflecting on my Uganda experience prior to my return several months ago. During these reflections, I tried to decipher whether or not I truly did love the country, or if it was just travel-lust that was clouding my perception. And really, there is no way to answer that from afar, but I'm thankful I was able to return so that I could determine this once and for all! And, for the record – I really do love this country!
Anyway, within these moments of reflection, there was one thing I kept coming back to. While travelling in the Gulu-area of the country (northern Uganda), a comment was directed at me that at the time I thought odd, but kind of put at the back of my mind as we continued with that particular day’s program.
While visiting a farm, an elder female farmer greeted us. Everyone shook her hand and said hello as we passed by. Everyone, included me.
As we continued to walk back to our transport to head to the next farm, one of the locals we were moving with thanked me for shaking the woman's hand. This took me back, as I didn't really give the action much thought - it's the polite and friendly thing to do when someone reaches out a hand and greets you. ...or so I thought.
I inquired as to why this was a seemingly big deal for me to reciprocate her outstretched hand, and was told that usually "white people don't like to touch the locals." Again, dumbfounded, I inquired further, once again. This is when I was told "most think they [the locals] are dirty." Anger, heartbreak, and just plain disbelief ensued. I thought to myself why come if you fear interacting with the locals? It didn't make much sense to me.
This question has since continued to plaque my thoughts. I wish I had snapped a photo of her, because she was the most welcoming lady – big smile, hard at work, just looking for a simple hello. There was no indication that she was unclean, nor did she make me feel even an ounce of reluctance to shake her hand and greet her. But I think this “fear of the locals” stems from the wealth of misinformation that seems to float around about this country more so, but the “developing” world more generally.
Many of the dialogues that accompany the African continent are based upon what is shown via charitable pleas and other such platforms. Rarely do these discussions introduce the sheer beauty of this part of the world, from the people, the landscapes, to the food, the languages, and the cultures. When most think of Africa I bet the first things that come to mind are any of the following keywords: poverty, malnutrition, famine, desert landscapes, disease, HIV/AIDS, fly-swatting children with distended bellies, conflict, crime, etc. And yes, there is no denying that all of those words can be applied to parts of the African continent, but it doesn’t mean they apply to all of it.
Some of the questions I have been asked over the years about what my experiences have been like, both here in Uganda, as well as my time in Ghana, have made me take a step back and wonder what decade we’re living in. Questions about access to cars, roads, cellphones, houses, etc. But, even in modern films these all exist. I mean, having to tell a well-educated adult that I don’t wake up to lions sniffing my front door every morning, or that the men don’t take to the bush clothed in their freshly made loin clothes in search of the day’s food source for the village are actual conversations I still can’t believe I’ve had to have. And I have tried, consciously, to ensure I am telling the stories of my experiences that truly reflect my realities of Africa – the people I’ve met, the incredible places I’ve visited, etc. So, it’s really disappointing when folks back home message me to ask if children go to school here, if there is electricity, or hot water*.
But it’s these same ideas and misinformed views of Africa that create the very fear some folks have about interacting with the locals. The days of “The African Savages” are long past – and in fact, never really existed; it was all just a means of allowing white folks to justify the mass exploitation that still continues to this day across the continent! Which brings me back to my original argument and reflection – why bother travelling all this way?
The truth is, I think most people come here in search of something bigger than them. It’s basically white saviour complex, or white people who come to “fix” all that is “wrong” with Africa. I’ve seen it so many times in my own short experience here, and it dumbfounds me. Usually there’s a religious connection, although not always, but conversations about the people they are working alongside are always framed in an ‘us vs. them’ fashion. In other words, the type of conversation that only talks about what the visiting individual has contributed (or believes they have contributed), rather than the work of the entire team (including the locals). This in and of itself is deeply rooted colonialism at its finest… and it really needs to change.
So, when you’re looking at those wonderful volunteer abroad programs** consider where you stand. What are your reasons for coming – is it cultural exchange or the desire to pat yourself on the back when you return home? What do you hope to get out of it? And perhaps more importantly, when she reaches out to shake your hand and greet you, will you offer your own hand back?
-the Orange Canadian
*Although, to be fair, I don’t actually have hot water – but with the heat we’ve had lately, it’s not really a thing you long for… Also, I am always happy to provide the correct information, but just wish it weren’t necessary.
**That generally do far more damage than they do good.